Burnett Memorial Fountain

Burnett

Burnett detail

Frances Hodgson Burnett

These figures represent Mary and Dickon from The Secret Garden, one of the most popular books by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924). When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Burnett’s home town of Manchester, England, fell on hard times, as Southern cotton stopped coming to the city’s textile mills. In fact, shipping cotton to towns like Manchester was so profitable that many New Yorker ship-owners opposed the Civil War.

But back to Burnett. Her family left Manchester for Tennessee, where 19-year-old Frances tried to help the family finances by writing short stories for women’s magazines. Her great successes, though, were children’s books, starting with Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1886. For the next decade, hapless little boys (including future New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia) were decked out in velvet suits and lace collars, like young Cedric.

The legendary Mary Pickford produced and starred in a silent movie of Burnett’s 1905 novel, The Little Princess.

Burnett's Secret Garden

In The Secret Garden, a spoiled child named Mary and her bedridden cousin Colin come vividly alive as they restore the locked, neglected garden at Misselthwaite Manor. Their guide is Dickon, who talks to the wild things on th’ moor and can whisper a flower out of a brick walk. Although The Secret Garden wasn’t immediately popular when published in 1911, it has now been made into 3 movies, 4 TV serials, a musical, an opera, and an anime film.

The Burnett Memorial in Central Park

Fittingly, this sculpture of Mary and Dickon sits in an almost-secret garden in Central Park: the Conservatory Garden. The Conservatory Garden is a mere 80 years old. In the 1930s, Robert Moses decided to demolish the rundown greenhouses on the east side of Central Park. Thousands of Works Progress Administration workers and hundreds of thousands in federal funding were used to build the Conservatory Garden.

It’s fenced off from the rest of the park and laid out in formal style. The center garden, in Italian style, has an open lawn flanked by flowering crabapples and backed by a wisteria-covered pergola.

The northern section, centered on the Untermyer Fountain, is in the French style, with symmetrical, segregated, precisely trimmed flower beds.

The Burnett Memorial sits in a lily pond in the southern section, which is laid out as an informal, English-style garden that’s reminiscent of the neglected oasis in Burnett’s Secret Garden.

Victor Hugo

I used the bronze birds to illustrate a tweet on a favorite Victor Hugo poem. (The translator seems to be unknown.)

Be like the bird, who
Pausing in his flight
On limb too slight
Feels it give way beneath him
Yet sings
Knowing he has wings.

This is the end of a much longer poem, “Dans l’eglise de ***,” in published in Hugo's Les chants du crepuscule, 1836. (Parce que je puis, bien entendu!)

Soyez comme l’oiseau, posé pour un instant
Sur des rameaux trop frêles,
Qui sent ployer la branche et qui chante pourtant,
Sachant qu’il a des ailes!